On the Ides of March in the modern year of 2012, two members of the Swartzentruber Amish, a sect that stresses modesty and simplicity in one’s appearance, were represented by an ACLU lawyer at the Kentucky Supreme Court for having refused to affix the required orange triangle “slow traffic” indicator on the back of their horse-drawn buggy. Besides testing the limits of religious accommodation in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, the case raises the question of whether religion warps cognitive faculties.
According to the members’ lawyer, the sect had long refrained from affixing the triangle to their buggies. According to the Wall Street Journal, the “rationale” of the defendants can be described as follows: “Aside from the color, which they consider to be too bright, they say the shape represents the holy trinity, and they don’t believe in wearing or carrying religious symbols for protection.” The brightness, the claim goes, “violates their code against garish displays.”
The Swartzentruberians view this triangle as a religious symbol. AP
Arguing for the government, assistant Attorney General Christian Miller said the triangle is “neutral toward religion” and the symbol is a necessary safety provision for “black buggies on black asphalt roads because other drivers “aren’t able to see them in time before they hit them.” In other words, the symbol is for the sect’s members’ own good. Even aside for any hope of a better world to come in the hereafter, the judgment wherein avoiding a garish display is put above one’s own life is questionable at best. Additionally, the claim that a triangle represents the Trinity can at the very least be questioned. For one thing, none of the three “persons” or “manifestations” of the Trinity is identified on the triangle. Indeed, nothing that can be taken as an object or entity is printed on the triangle. Moreover, if a religious symbol can be so generalized, then practically anything could be taken as a religious symbol, but this assumes that the generalization is valid—that the projection is in the eye of the beholder. What is missing is someone to say: “No, a triangle is not a symbol of the trinity; a triangle is a triangle, by definition.” That is, the error is sidestepped or ignored rather than made transparent.
So my point is that the issue in the case is only superficially constitutional—that of religious accommodation. The real issue is whether there is any limit to human error when it comes to the making of religious claims. Let’s consider a hypothetical case. Were I to point to a cloud in front of a plane I am on and object to the pilot flying through it because it represents Jesus because it has his likeness, the stewardess might reply, “It might look like Jesus, but a cloud is not a religious symbol.” My reasoning, in other words, would be flawed. Similarly, the reasoning behind the claim that a triangle is a symbol of the Trinity is flawed.
Furthermore, the case represents religion over-reaching its domain. To claim that orange being bright violates a religious sensibility is to miscategorize that sensibility. Were a religion to categorize bright orange as sinful, a rationale in religious terms would be necessary. Here, it is not sufficient merely to provide any old rationale; it should be based on something at least moderately important in the religion. Of course, a religion could be invented that makes color dynamics primary, but then the question would be whether the religion is in fact a religion or a theory of art or design—and whether the matter is entirely relative.
In short, the view that the brightness of a color is a religious matter—and an important one at that—and that any triangle is a religious symbol—more specifically, that of the Trinity—evinces lapses of judgment and cognition in the human mind. The question therefore might be whether the mind is ill-suited to the religious domain—even mistaking that domain itself by conflating it with others. My hunch is that were the domain to be rightly understood—which may not be possible for us mere mortals—the lapses would not occur. Yet even if such understanding were in the mix, the assumption that everyone is right about what constitutes religion would mean that even extraordinary lapses would occur under the auspices of freedom of religion and the mistaken assumption that no one can be wrong about religion itself, not to mention what constitutes the domain. In other words, the black buggies probably ran off the road even as their drivers assumed that anywhere they drive is road. It is as if it were a sin to say to them, “You are not on the road, and, furthermore, you can be wrong about even that—and in fact you are.” They would undoubtedly reply with a petulent “No,” as per the stubborn arrogance that is hardwired into the human mind and manifests especially where it has least footing, as though ignorance on stilts during a flood.
Steve Eder, “Amish Bridle at Buggy Rules,” The Wall Street Journal, March 16, 2012. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702303863404577283863473512448.html